June 1, 2011
Raining on Your Draft Parade
It's the week before the draft, so teams and fans alike are filled with optimism. Clubs with highly-coveted single-digit picks are especially excited, because that's where the elite talent comes from. Those are the guys that can change the state of the franchise. Those are the players who often become a team's top prospect the moment they sign their name to a contract. That said, there are a variety of reasons they don't always work out. So in the interest of raining on everybody's parade, especially those in Baltimore, here's a reminder of the 10 worst single-digit draft picks in the last decade.
1. Matt Bush, San Diego Padres, 2004 (First overall)
Now that Bush is trying to remake himself as a relief pitcher with the Rays, he's destined to become the first position player drafted first overall not to reach the big leagues as a position player since the Mets selected catcher Steve Chilcott with the top pick in 1966 instead of Reggie Jackson. Don't blame the Padres' baseball people, though. Kevin Towers and his scouting department had their eyes on Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, as well as the top two college pitchers on the board, Old Dominion’s Justin Verlander and Long Beach State’s Jered Weaver. Ownership didn't want to pay big bucks, and when Bush, a local product, stepped in and said he would sign quickly, the wrong decision was made. Things went south quickly when he was arrested for his role in a fight outside a bar in Arizona before he even played a game. He hit just .219/.294/.276 in 223 injury-plagued games before moving to the mound, and scouts are not convinced that his plus-plus velocity will get him to the big leagues until he finds a second pitch and throws more strikes.
2. Wade Townsend, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, 2004 and 2005 (Eighth overall twice)
Double your pleasure, double your mistakes. Like Bush, the Orioles’ mistake was produced by ownership intervention, when Peter Angelos insisted at the last moment that the team select a college pitcher who would sign cheap and move through the system quickly. As it turned out, Baltimore missed on the first half of that equation, as the two sides never agreed to terms, allowing the Rays to partake of a career destroyed by elbow and shoulder surgery with the exact same pick one year later.He pitched in just 64 pro games over five years, finishing with a 5.58 ERA.
3. Colt Griffin, RHP, Kansas City Royals, 2001 (Ninth overall)
In spring 2001, Griffin was the stuff of legend. He was a kid with a Roger Clemens body and a fastball that touched 100 mph who seemingly came out of nowhere, in a small town in northeast Texas. Despite his scouting report having little else on the positive side of the ledger, the velocity alone was enough to earn a $2.4 million bonus. He walked 87 batters, hit 16 more, and uncorked 29 wild pitches over less than 100 innings in his full-season debut. Things never got better, as his secondary offerings never developed, and he couldn't throw strikes with his fastball, even after dialing down the velocity. He hung ‘em up at age 22 with more walks (278) than strikeouts (271) in 373 1/3 career innings.
4. Chris Smith, LHP, Baltimore Orioles, 2001 (Seventh overall)
While Griffin was a bust, it was the selection of Smith that had more people scratching their heads on draft day 10 years ago. A position player at Florida State, Smith transferred to a small NAIA school in Tennessee so he could pitch, and while he showed some serious arm strength, he was short, wide-bodied, and very raw. He walked 21 while striking out just four in 11 Appy League innings during summer 2002, and wouldn't pitch again until 2004 due to shoulder surgery. One year later, he was out of organized baseball with a career ERA of 6.12 in just 49 appearances.
5. Kyle Sleeth, RHP, Detroit Tigers, 2003 (Third overall)
There was nothing wrong with the Sleeth selection at the time. The first pitcher selected in the 2003 draft, Sleeth was a 6-foot-5 classic power pitcher who had tied the NCAA record with 26 consecutive wins between his sophomore and junior seasons. He reached Double-A during his first full year with Detroit, but his stuff dropped off considerably at the end of the season, when it was announced he required Tommy John surgery. While such a procedure is often seen as just a temporary setback, the rate of recovery is nowhere near 100 percent, and Sleeth was never the same. After putting up ERAs above 8.00 in both 2006 and 2007, he retired, and now owns a successful barbershop franchise in Florida.
6. Billy Rowell, 3B, Baltimore Orioles, 2006 (Ninth overall)
The year 2006 was a weak one for high school hitters. Rowell, a 6-foot-5 slugger from New Jersey with arguably the best raw power available in the draft, was the first prep player selected. He was always bad defensively, and after he was drafted, he got bigger and slower. Most importantly, he never developed as a hitter. Rowell carries a career batting line of .261/.330/.390 into Wednesday's action; he’s currently hitting .225 without a home run in his first taste of Double-A after three seasons in the Carolina League. Yet the most painful thing about the Rowell selection is not his failed career, but rather who the Orioles did not select. With the next pick, the San Francisco Giants took a little right-hander with electric stuff from the University of Washington named Tim Lincecum.
7. Kyle Skipworth, C, Florida Marlins, 2008 (Sixth overall)
By the later part of the decade, most teams were actively sticking their tongues out at the commissioner’s bonus recommendations. That memo somehow never got to the Marlins, whose thrifty spending ways have always extended to the draft. Because the team is rarely outright bad, this was their only single-digit pick since 2000, when they selected Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez at first overall. Florida plain dropped the ball with Skipworth, who was seen as more of an early teen talent than this high a selection. He signed quickly and without any over-slot shenanigans, but that's about the only positive thing to say about his career. While there was some concern about his defense, scouts certainly thought he would hit coming out of high school. Instead, he has done anything but hit; he sports a .219 career batting average with 320 strikeouts in 259 games, including a .176 mark this season in his first exposure to Double-A pitching.
8. Matt Hobgood, RHP, Baltimore Orioles, 2009 (Fifth overall)
Depressed yet, Baltimore fans? The Orioles insisted that Hobgood was the guy they wanted all along at fifth overall two years ago, but that ruse was quickly exposed when he become the rare high pick to sign for a figure below the recommended slot. Seen as more of a mid-to-late first-round talent heading into the draft, Hobgood's stuff has never been anywhere close to his high school days, and after rarely getting out of the 80s with his fastball and putting up a 4.40 ERA at Low-A Delmarva in 2010 with just 59 strikeouts in 94 innings, he suffered a shoulder injury this spring that he is still recovering from. This might be a premature call, but nothing is moving in the right direction.
9. Casey Weathers, RHP, Colorado Rockies, 2007 (Eighth overall)
Teams sometimes go the college reliever route in the first round, hoping to find an arm that can move quickly, but it's rarely a gambit used with such a high pick. The 2007 draft was not an especially strong one, which may have tipped the Rockies’ decision to draft Weathers. Four years later, they are still waiting for him to reach the majors. Weathers ended up a pitcher by accident after he and a junior college teammate took to the mound to see which outfielder could throw harder. Weathers not only won the contest, but also touched the mid-90s; a closer was born. After dominating at Vanderbilt, Weathers was poised to contend for a roster spot in 2009 before being sidelined by Tommy John surgery. He still throws hard, but what was once below-average control is now a real problem; he has walked 35 over 44 2/3 innings since his return to go with a 4.63 ERA.
10. Chris Lubanski, OF, Kansas City Royals, 2003 (Fifth overall)
Still one of the more baffling picks in recent memory, Lubanski was the national player of the year at Kennedy-Kendrick High School in Pennsylvania, and a legitimate selection by the Royals at the time, but he quickly turned into a completely different player. As an amateur, he was a plus-plus runner with a bit of pop that reminded some of former 1992 Royals first-round pick Johnny Damon, but he underwent a quick, unexpected transformation: His speed was gone by age 21, turning him into a bulky corner outfielder without enough bat to get to the big leagues. Released by the Royals after the 2009 season, he hit .293 with 17 home runs for the Blue Jays' Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas last year, but couldn't find an offer for 2011 and is now with the Chico Outlaws in the independent North American League.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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